Monday, May 2, 2016

My First Time: Jodi Paloni


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jodi Paloni, author of the debut collection of linked stories, They Could Live With Themselves (Press 53), a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Her stories have appeared in a number of print and on-line literary journals: Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, Literary Mama, and others. Jodi holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A Vermonter for over twenty-years, she recently moved to the Maine coast where she works as a freelance editor, teacher, and writing coach. You can learn more about her at www.jodipaloni.com


My First Unanswerable Question: On “Aboutness”

A first timer, I get caught every time I’m asked: What’s your book about? I feel panic uncurl in my gut, rise to my chest, bud to beanstalk, looking for light. I should know this, right?

A few years ago, I observed a pattern that took place in my work. Without exception, I begin by placing a character alonedancing in her living room, tinkering in his shed, standing on the edge of an abandoned swimming poolor I begin with characters who are relatively alonea grandfather pushing a small child on a swing, a divorcee interacting with a sick cat brought home from the shelter. But they don’t stay alone for too long. Enter a significant counterparta pregnant stranger, a new love, a lost love, three teenage girls skipping school on a park bench, a silent hiker wearing orange sneakers, a disquieted man seeking shelter in a storm.

I made the decision that what these stories were about was the interplay of solitude and communion, agency spurred by an antagonist, how no person is an island, and, yet, how we’re often faced with the question: Even among others, aren’t we still very much alone? And have we made peace with that?

I’m not certain if knowing this did anything for me, or for the work. I didn’t have any of this understanding in the forefront my consciousness when I sat down to write. When I faced the blank page, I wrote a character, a scene. That my characters were often alone became humorous to me. There it is again! I’d exclaim to my husband or to friends in my writing group. There it is again.

Then came the blurbs. Another first. Another panic. Respected authors, favorite ones of mine, had formulated meaning from their take on the stories.

...the eternal tug between giving to others and giving to oneself.  (Philip Graham)

It is the life as lived, complete with shocks, with strange alliances...  (Robin Black)

...humane writer, with her ear turned to the quiet, pivotal moments...  (Alexis Smith)

Pivotal moments in which a new character walks onto the stage. Whew! My first readers, they got it! Then, later, came this…a blurb from Lori Ostlund, generous reader, outstanding writer:
Her characters—teachers and students, business owners and artists—surprise themselves (and us) with realizations that, quite often, arrive late, but never—Paloni assures us—too late…reminding us of the ways that we are all connected and the ways that we must each, alone, learn to live with ourselves.
So, yes, that’s four, a quorum. “Aboutness” confirmed.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an early draft of the manuscript. Before I submitted the manuscript to Press 53, I hired a friend to do a proofread and make to make editorial comments. Now, as I read through the margin comments, it was interesting to look back on two-year old feedback knowing that some semblance of those pages are now a book, multiple books, a pile of them on my dining room table. One note slowed me down, written in fine cursive, in light pencil...

Jodi, these stories are about desire.

Are they? Really?

If so, then, where does desire fit in with the concept: alone and with others? And aren’t these stories really about the significance of place, small-town Vermont, and aren’t they about any old town USA? And what about obsession? Yes! Definitely! These stories are about obsession! And on, and on.

Next question: Does my confusion regarding “aboutness” have to do with being a first-timer? Do seasoned authors with more bookstwo, three, fourknow what their books are about? Here I go again, answering confusion with complexity.

Then it comes to me, a realization, late, surely, but maybe, as Lori suggests of my characters, not “too late.” My stories are about questions.

Why this? Why now? Who? What next? How?

So I turn, as I often do, to Rilke. His words will soothe my debut jitters. I lean on the classic passage he once wrote to a first timer, the proverbial newbie, the young poet...
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
       —Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet
What is your book about? Hmmm...

Maybe next time, my second time or my third, I’ll know.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Eight stories below, the streets pulsed with traffic and possibility and the desperate energy of a million dreams not coming true fast enough.

Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed


Friday, April 29, 2016

Friday Freebie: Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht and Montauk by Max Frisch


Congratulations to Bart Zimmer, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: True Stories at the Smoky View by Jill McCroskey Coupe.

This week, I have a nice pair of new releases from our friends at Tin House Books to put in one lucky reader’s hands: Relief Map by Rosalie Knecht and Montauk by Max Frisch. Read on for more details about the books...

In Relief Map, a small town is swept up in a manhunt for a fugitive from foreign soil and a teenage girl struggles to make the right choices with little information and less time. In the heat of a stifling summer in her sixteenth year, Livy Marko spends her days in the rust-belt town of Lomath, Pennsylvania, babysitting, hanging out with her best friend, Nelson, and waiting for a bigger life to begin. These simple routines are disrupted when the electricity is cut off and the bridges are closed by a horde of police and FBI agents. A fugitive from the Republic of Georgia, on the run from an extradition order, has taken refuge in nearby hills and no one is able to leave or enter Lomath until he is found.As the police fail to find the wanted man and hours stretch into days, the town of Lomath begins to buckle under the strain. Like Russian dolls, each hostage seems to be harboring a captive of their own. Even Livy’s parents may have something to conceal, and Livy must learn that the source of danger is not always what it appears.Rosalie Knecht’s wise and suspenseful debut evokes the classics while conjuring the contemporary paranoia of the post-terrorist age. Relief Map doesn’t loosen its grip until the consequences of this catastrophic summer, and the ways in which a quiet girl’s fate can be rerouted and forever changed, are made fully apparent.

Montauk, translated by Geoffrey Skelton and introduction by Jonathan Dee, is Max Frisch's candid story of his affair with a young woman illuminates a lifetime of relationships. Montauk was first published in the mid-1970s and has been out of print until now. Casting himself as both subject and observer, Frisch reflects on his marriages, children, friendships, and careers; a holiday weekend in Long Island is a trigger to recount and question events and aspects of his own life, along with creeping fears of mortality. He paints a bittersweet portrait that is sometimes painful and sometimes humorous, but always affecting. Emotionally raw and formally innovative, Frisch’s novel collapses the distinction between art and life, but leaves the reader with a richer understanding of both. Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s Bookworm has this to say about Montauk: “In this spectacular melancholic novel Max Frisch perfects the art of understatement. His casual itemization of betrayals and losses is, at first, dry and brilliantly done. Slowly, statements like he was a friend of ours, turn into bitter accusations and Montauk, the autobiography of a brief vacation becomes a quiet and hugely subtle rendering of love’s terrible disappointments.”

If you’d like a chance at winning both Relief Map and Montauk, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on May 5, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on May 6. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Front Porch Books: April 2016 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, Amazon and other sources. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.


Constellation
by Adrien Bosc
(Other Press)

Part coroner’s report, part high drama involving multiple characters, part poetic meditation on fate and circumstance, Adrien Bosc’s debut novel about a 1949 plane crash fascinates me and I can’t stop staring at it from its place at the top of the To-Be-Read stack. I’ll admit I’ve been attracted to soap-operas-on-planes ever since I saw the 1970 movie Airport based on Arthur Hailey’s novel. All those various lives confined in a small metal tube that’s headed for disaster—who couldn’t find something to love about that? I’ll be ready to board Bosc’s short novel soon.

Jacket Copy:  On October 27, 1949, Air France’s new plane, the Constellation, launched by the extravagant Howard Hughes, welcomed thirty-eight passengers aboard. On October 28, no longer responding to air traffic controllers, the plane disappeared while trying to land on the island of Santa Maria, in the Azores. No one survived. The question Adrien Bosc’s novel asks is not so much how, but why? What were the series of tiny incidents that, in sequence, propelled the plane toward Redondo Mountain? And who were the passengers? As we recognize Marcel Cerdan, the famous boxer and lover of Edith Piaf, and we remember the musical prodigy Ginette Neveu, whose tattered violin would be found years later, the author ties together their destinies: “Hear the dead, write their small legend, and offer to these thirty-eight men and women, like so many constellations, a life and a story.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Sublime, haunting, exuberant, Constellation turns a tragedy into a miracle. In reviving the victims of a doomed 1949 Air France flight, Adrien Bosc writes beautifully about coincidence and fate, including the greatest coincidence at all—that we are alive on earth together for a short time. Constellation is a novel of profound humanity.”  (Nathaniel Rich, author of Odds Against Tomorrow)


Unpleasantries
by Frank Soos
(University of Washington Press)

Full disclosure: Frank Soos is a good friend of mine. In fact, he’s a little more than that: he’s my mentor and the one writing instructor I can point to in my life and say, “That man there? He was my guidepost, my mile marker, my billboard that promised the relief of food and gas at the next exit.” Frank was my professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and I owe a great deal of what comes out on my pages to his wisdom and encouragement. That being said, I look forward to Frank’s books enthusiastically and without bias. Though their appearances are often few and far between, Frank’s stories and essays are dependably thoughtful and rich in imagery. This new collection of essays is subtitled “Considerations of Difficult Questions,” but for me, there’s no question I’ll be digging into this book very, very soon.

Jacket Copy:  Even from upside-down in his recently flipped truck, Frank Soos reveals himself to be ruminative, grappling with the limitations of language to express the human condition. Moving quickly―skiing in the dark or taking long summer bike rides on Alaska highways―Soos combines an active physical life with a dark and difficult interior existence, wrestling the full span of “thinking and doing” onto the page with surprising lightness. His meditations move from fly-fishing in dangerously swift Alaska rivers to memories of the liars and dirty-joke tellers of his small-town Virginia childhood, revealing insights in new encounters and old preoccupations. Soos writes about pain and despair, aging, his divorce, his father’s passing, regret, the loss of home, and the fear of death. But in the process of confronting these dark topics, he is full of wonder. As he writes at the end of an account of almost drowning, “Bruised but whole, I was alive, alive, alive.”

Opening Lines:  It is dark outside. I’m alone in the ski hut, adding layer on layer to my ski clothes. Though some trails at the university in Fairbanks are lighted, I will take the longer, darker path through the woods. The last thing I do is strap on my headlamp, feeding the battery pack down my back under all my clothes so it will stay warm next to my skin. This may be crazy, setting out alone when it is already twenty below. But I know these trails so well that when I cannot sleep one of my tricks to overcome insomnia is to ski them in my mind.

Blurbworthiness:  “What is a successful life, a life worthy of the improbable gift of consciousness? And how does one maintain courage and purpose under the shadow of mortality? These are the difficult questions that Frank Soos ponders most intently in these lucid, candid, witty essays. Whatever thread he follows―fishing, lying, playing basketball, telling jokes, building a canoe, rolling a truck, watching his father die―it leads him to reflect on the finiteness and preciousness of life.”  (Scott Russell Sanders, author of Earth Works: Selected Essays)


Eleven Hours
by Pamela Erens
(Tin House Books)

As Publishers Weekly notes, labor and childbirth stories are as old as Eve delivering Cain, but in the hands of the exceptionally-talented Pamela Erens, Eleven Hours—a slim novel that will take you less than the titular time to read—promises to be a fresh take on OB-GYN.

Jacket Copy:  From the critically acclaimed author of The Virgins, Eleven Hours is an intimate exploration of the physical and mental challenges of childbirth, told with unremitting suspense and astonishing beauty. Lore arrives at the hospital alone―no husband, no partner, no friends. Her birth plan is explicit: she wants no fetal monitor, no IV, no epidural. Franckline, a nurse in the maternity ward―herself on the verge of showing―is patient with the young woman. She knows what it’s like to worry that something might go wrong, and she understands the distress when it does. She knows as well as anyone the severe challenge of childbirth, what it does to the mind and the body. Eleven Hours is the story of two soon-to-be mothers who, in the midst of a difficult labor, are forced to reckon with their pasts and re-create their futures. Lore must disentangle herself from a love triangle; Franckline must move beyond past traumas to accept the life that’s waiting for her. Pamela Erens moves seamlessly between their begrudging partnership and the memories evoked by so intense an experience: for Lore, of the father of her child and her former best friend; for Franckline, of the family in Haiti from which she’s exiled. At turns urgent and lyrical, Erens’s novel is a visceral portrait of childbirth, and a vivid rendering of the way we approach motherhood―with fear and joy, anguish and awe.

Opening Lines:  No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt. Her birth plan says no to fetal monitoring.
     These girls with their birth plans, thinks Franckline, as if much of anything about a birth can be planned. She thinks girl although she has read on the intake form that Lore Tannenbaum is thirty-one-years old, a year older than Franckline herself. Caucasian, born July something, employed by the New York City Department of Education. Franckline pronounced the girl’s name wrong at first, said “Lorie,” and the girl corrected her, said there was only one syllable. Lore.

Blurbworthiness:  “Written with incredible clarity, the third novel from Erens is a wonder, shifting between two protagonists with ease to tell a deeply personal narrative of childbirth, complete with tension, horror, and deep mature emotion. This novel does not sentimentalize the delivery of a child, but rather examines the surprise—mental and physical—that accompanies it. Labor stories are as old as time, but Erens’s novel feels incredibly fresh and vivid. An outstanding accomplishment.”  (Publishers Weekly)


The Stopped Heart
by Julie Myerson
(Harper Perennial)

There are first lines, and then there are first lines. I defy anyone to read the opening paragraph of Julie Myerson’s new novel and put the book aside with a shrug and a “ho-hum.” The remainder of The Stopped Heart promises to do the opposite of its title, too. My heart’s already racing from that first page alone.

Jacket Copy:  Mary Coles and her husband, Graham, have just moved to a cottage on the edge of a small village. The house hasn’t been lived in for years, but they are drawn to its original features and surprisingly large garden, which stretches down into a beautiful apple orchard. It’s idyllic, remote, picturesque: exactly what they need to put the horror of the past behind them. One hundred and fifty years earlier, a huge oak tree was felled in front of the cottage during a raging storm. Beneath it lies a young man with a shock of red hair, presumed dead—surely no one could survive such an accident. But the red-haired man is alive, and after a brief convalescence is taken in by the family living in the cottage and put to work in the fields. The children all love him, but the eldest daughter, Eliza, has her reservations. There’s something about the red-haired man that sits ill with her. A presence. An evil. Back in the present, weeks after moving to the cottage and still drowning beneath the weight of insurmountable grief, Mary Coles starts to sense there’s something in the house. Children’s whispers, footsteps from above, half-caught glimpses of figures in the garden. A young man with a shock of red hair wandering through the orchard. Has Mary’s grief turned to madness? Or have the events that took place so long ago finally come back to haunt her?

Opening Lines:  It was a sunny day. The sky was thick and high and blue. Addie Sands was standing in the lane and she was screaming. There was blood everywhere. On her skirts, her wrists, her face. A dark hole where her mouth should be. There were no words. Nothing but the black taste of her screaming.


Mercury
by Margot Livesey
(Harper)

A horse, an optometrist’s wife, an obsession: Margot Livesey’s new novel stirs these disparate ingredients into a story that sets a fishhook deep in my attention span, pulling me closer and closer with every page. Mercury is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing books on the 2016 Fall list.

Jacket Copy:  Donald believes he knows all there is to know about seeing. An optician in suburban Boston, he rests assured that he and his wife, Viv, who works at the local stables, will live out quiet lives with their two children. Then Mercury—a gorgeous young racehorse—enters their lives and everything changes. Viv’s friend Hilary has inherited Mercury from her brother after his mysterious death—he was riding Mercury late one afternoon and the horse returned to the stables alone. When Hilary first brings Mercury to board at the stables everyone there is struck by his beauty and prowess, particularly Viv. As she rides him, Viv dreams of competing with Mercury, rebuilding the ambitions of grandeur that she held for herself before moving to the suburbs. But her daydreams soon morph into consuming desire, and her infatuation with the thoroughbred quickly escalates to obsession. By the time Donald understands the change that has come over Viv, it is too late to stop the impending fate that both their actions have wrought for them and their loved ones. A beautifully crafted, riveting novel about the ways in which relationships can be disrupted and, ultimately, destroyed by obsession, secrets and ever-escalating lies.

Opening Lines:  My mother called me after a favorite uncle, who was in turn called after a Scottish king. Donald III was sixty when he first ascended the throne in 1093. He went on to reign twice, briefly and disastrously. As a child I hated my name—other children sang “Donald, where’s y’er troosers?” in the playground—but as an adult I have come to appreciate being named after a valiant late bloomer: a man who seized the day. Of course most Americans, when I introduce myself, are thinking not about Scottish history but about a cartoon duck.

Blurbworthiness:  “Mercury demonstrates Tolstoy’s dictum: all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. The Stevensons find themselves upended by a horse—a magnificent horse that sets off a chain of deceit and crime. This powerful novel reveals the fragility of life when tested by the shock of genuine passion.”  (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)


In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper
edited by Lawrence Block
(Pegasus)

If ever there were a painter perfectly primed to have an anthology of stories inspired by his or her canvases, then Edward Hopper surely fits the bill. In Sunlight or In Shadow promises to be a remarkable collection of fiction, not only for the outstanding lineup of contributors but for the source inspiration as well. As editor Lawrence Block says in his Foreword, “Hopper was neither an illustrator nor a narrative painter. His paintings don’t tell stories. What they do is suggest—powerfully, irresistibly—that there are stories within them, waiting to be told. He shows us a moment in time, arrayed on a canvas; there’s clearly a past and a future, but it’s our task to find it for ourselves.”

Jacket Copy:  Lawrence Block has invited seventeen outstanding writers to join him in an unprecedented anthology of brand-new stories: In Sunlight or In Shadow. The results are remarkable and range across all genres, wedding literary excellence to storytelling savvy. Contributors include Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Olen Butler, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott, Craig Ferguson, Nicholas Christopher, Jill D. Block, Joe R. Lansdale, Justin Scott, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Warren Moore, Jonathan Santlofer, Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child, and Lawrence Block himself. Even Gail Levin, Hopper’s biographer and compiler of his catalogue raisonĂ©e, appears with her own first work of fiction, providing a true account of art theft on a grand scale and told in the voice of the country preacher who perpetrated the crime. In a beautifully produced anthology as befits such a collection of acclaimed authors, each story is illustrated with a quality full-color reproduction of the painting that inspired it. Illustrated with 17 full color plates, one for each chapter.

Opening Lines:  “She went udders out.”
     “No pasties even?”
     “Like a pair of traffic lights.”
     Pauline hears them on the porch. Bud is telling her husband about a trip to New York City a few years ago. Going to the Casino de Paree.
     Her husband says almost nothing, smoking cigarette after cigarette and making sure Bud always has a Blatz in hand from the metal cooler beside him.
          (from “Girlie Show” by Megan Abbott)


Remarkable
by Dinah Cox
(BOA Editions)

Short Story Month begins in a few days and I can’t think of a better way to get things underway than this collection of short fiction by Dinah Cox. Midwestern stories hold a special fascination for me—perhaps because I grew up in Wyoming and now live in Montana—and these tales set mostly in Oklahoma seem to be especially full of Great Plains goodness.

Jacket Copy:  Set within the resilient Great Plains, these award-winning stories are marked by the region’s people and landscape, and the distinctive way it is both regressive in its politics yet also stumbling toward something better. While not all stories are explicitly set in Oklahoma, the state is almost a character that is neither protagonist nor antagonist, but instead the weird next-door-neighbor you’re perhaps too ashamed of to take anywhere. Who is the embarrassing one—you or Oklahoma?

Opening Lines:  A guy walks into Kentucky Fried Chicken and says, Gimme some chicken. Maybe he has a gun and maybe he has only his finger, shaking and sweating underneath the front flap of his jacket; either way, his demand is not for money but chicken. Two piece leg and thigh. Extra crispy. No one in his right mind asks for original recipe these days. And that biscuit had better be hot, don’t give him any of that hockey puck shit. Everyone is worried. Once, exactly a year ago today, a tornado ripped through town and blew out the restaurant’s front windows. Customers, clerks, managers, babies, and dead frozen chickens all huddle in the walk-in for safety. No one was hurt. But today is a different story. If the man with the gun/finger doesn’t get his chicken, he might shoot someone. He might kill someone.
     “To go,” he says. “Didn’t I say to go earlier? I think I did.”
     “You did, sir,” says the clerk. “Sorry.”
     “Damn right you’re sorry.”
     This is where the story begins and also where the story ends, because the guy took his chicken and left the store. Just walked right out. And no one called the police and no one posted about it on Facebook and no one tweeted or bleated or cared. The register didn’t even come up short because no money changed hands. But the best part of the story is that it at once represents what’s best about small towns and what’s worst about them. What’s best is that people in small towns will give one another chicken. For free. What’s worst is the tornado’s near miss, the broken glass all over the greasy floor, the children crying, the dead chickens in the freezer, and the people who want nothing more than to eat them.

Blurbworthiness:  “Funny, disturbing, and unapologetically smart—the stories in Remarkable sneak into your heart and then break it. We meet Marcella who works at the Telephone Museum and hears imaginary conversations, and the B-movie star of Tumbleweed Town, a sort of Brokeback Mountain meets Deliverance meets The Monkees. The fictive people in this collection, iconoclasts of the Midwest, conjure their own idiosyncratic, surprisingly honest and tender worlds.”  (Nona Caspers, author of Heavier than Air)


Monday, April 25, 2016

My First Time: Dana Cann


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Dana Cann, author of Ghosts of Bergen County, now available from Tin House Books. His short stories have appeared in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Florida Review, Barrelhouse, and Blackbird, among other magazines and journals. He’s won fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. Dana earned his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, and he teaches fiction workshops at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Click here to visit his website.


My First Novel (the Unpublished One)

This week I’m publishing my first novel, Ghosts of Bergen County, with Tin House Books. While Ghosts will forever be my debut novel, it’s not the first one I wrote. That novel was called The Happy World, and it exists in the deep recesses of my computer’s hard drive, never to see the light of day. It’s the novel I needed to write in order to learn how to write a novel.

I’m told this is common. Writing is a craft. One spends years as an apprentice, toiling away on pieces that don’t measure up, that don’t quite work. Progress is incremental, breakthroughs rare.

I’d been writing fiction for eleven years by the time I completed my M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins in 2002. I’d written dozens of short stories, but I’d published only one. My Hopkins thesis comprised five stories. I thought they were pretty good. I thought it was time to submit those stories to journals and magazines, and start something new, something long, since I wasn’t bound anymore by classes.

A few years earlier my aunt had died. She was my father’s sister. They were estranged, their relationship complicated. She was nine years older than my dad. Their mom had died when my father was very young and my aunt was still a girl. Then their dad died when my father was in his early teens and my aunt was in her early twenties. She became his de facto guardian, a role she would discard when my dad was sixteen and she sailed to England to marry a barrister she met in New York after World War II. My father, who rarely talked about his childhood, felt she’d abandoned him when he needed her most.

I could go on, recount the stuff I remember as a kid: the one meeting when I was seven; the drunk, long-distance calls she’d make from London, complete with boasts about her wealth, promises of how rich my brothers and I would become when she died and inherited her assets, and insults hurled at my father and mother.

When she died, my older brother and I flew to London to help settle her estate. I came home having spent time in her flat among her things. And I came home with mementos—photos and letters and telegrams—stuffed into a vintage Harrods box. I hoped to use these as inspiration to write a novel based on her life.

And I did—275 double-spaced pages. The Happy World was about an unhappy woman—old and alone, friendless and isolated in London, where her dwindling assets could no longer support her. She prepares to kill herself. She looks back on her life.

I knew things about my main character. These things were based on my own experiences with my aunt, snippets of family lore, and the contents of the Harrods box. My dad, ever-mum about his childhood and all things having to do with his sister, wasn’t opening up, even after she died. Nor did I ask him to or even want him to. I wrote fiction, after all. My plan was to take the scant real stuff that I knew (let’s call it the bones) and make up the rest (the flesh).

What went wrong? As it turns out, plenty. Here are three mistakes I made when I wrote The Happy World and the adjustments I made when I wrote Ghosts of Bergen County:

1.  While I’d thought I didn’t know enough about the woman my main character was based on, it turned out I knew too much, and my adherence to the actual events constrained me. Writing The Happy World began to feel like a forensic exercise instead of a story. In contrast, the characters in Ghosts were freer because the situations they found themselves in were divorced from any real events I knew of or was aware of.

2.  The Happy World was too grim. A literary agent, upon reading my pitch, observed that the story didn’t sound too happy. Of course not, I thought. The title’s ironic! He was right, of course. I’d piled on so much bleakness that the protagonist (and the reader) could barely breathe. Grim things happen in Ghosts, too. One of the principal characters, for instance, has gone through a major depressive episode; however, as the novel opens, she’s begun to recover. Then she discovers a way out.

3.  The Happy World employed a structure that was too ambitious, too unconventional for my writing experience and abilities: I was telling a story backward—starting at the end and ending at the beginning. While such a structure might work for Martin Amis, it didn’t for me. It turns out there are reasons why stories are generally told with a beginning, middle, and end, and I was conscious while writing Ghosts of chronology, of keeping the forward motion forever moving forward.

I spent about three years writing The Happy World and another year in a futile search for an agent. It sounds disappointing, and, at the time, it was. But it wasn’t a waste. These were productive years during which I learned a lot about the types of stories I could and should write and how to tell them.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Sentence: They Could Live With Themselves by Jodi Paloni


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Sunlight runs pink across post-winter grass as if to soothe afternoon into evening.

“Molly Sings the Blues”
from They Could Live With Themselves by Jodi Paloni


Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday Freebie: True Stories at the Smoky View by Jill McCroskey Coupe


Congratulations to Karin Lau, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Daredevils by Shawn Vestal.

This week’s book giveaway is True Stories at the Smoky View by Jill McCroskey Coupe. John Dufresne (author of No Regrets, Coyote) had this to say about the book: “True Stories at the Smoky View is a riveting literary mystery you won’t soon forget. Jill McCroskey Coupe handles this complex tale of troubled romance, broken families, redeeming friendship, and inexplicable evil with intelligence, grace, and grit. This exhilarating debut novel brims with honesty, charm, heart, and good humor.” For more about Jill’s experience writing True Stories at the Smoky View, check out her “My First Time” essay posted earlier in the week here at the blog.

And now, a few words about the novel from her publisher...

After attending the funeral of her estranged friend Skip in Knoxville, Tennessee, Vrai (short for Vraiment), a forty-something art history librarian with sons of her own, rescues ten-year-old Jonathan, who has been abandoned with no shoes in the funeral home parking lot. The Blizzard of 1993 strands this unlikely duo at the Smoky View Motel, where, motivated in part by the unsolved murders of Jonathan’s parents, they begin to uncover the truth about Skip’s death. With elements of mystery and intrigue, True Stories at the Smoky View is primarily a novel about relationships: the love Vrai feels for her husband and sons, all of whom have left home; her friendship with Skip, which she begins to see in a new light; and her deepening bond with Jonathan. For Vrai and Jonathan, this is a story of mutual rescue―one that results in new lives for them both.

If you’d like a chance at winning True Stories at the Smoky View, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on April 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on April 29. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Monday, April 18, 2016

My First Time: Jill McCroskey Coupe


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jill McCroskey Coupe, author of True Stories at the Smoky View, now out from She Writes Press. Library Journal has this to say about the novel: “With intricate story lines involving murder, library research, road trips, and Vrai’s and ­Jonathan’s quest for justice, and motifs including motherhood, love, marriage, betrayal, and true friendship, there is something for everyone in this light/dark Southern novel by a writer to watch.” A former librarian at Johns Hopkins University, Jill has an MFA in Fiction from North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College. She lives in Baltimore. Visit her online at jillmcoupe.wordpress.com or on Facebook.


My First Agent (and My Second, and My Third)

My first agent, Elizabeth McKee, had been Flannery O’Connor’s agent. In the 1970s she was also J. R. Salamanca’s (best known for his novel Lilith). Salamanca was then teaching creative writing at the University of Maryland, where I was enrolled in the master’s program in library science, and I was fortunate enough to take two of his classes. This kind man even agreed to read a novel l’d written over the summer.

It’s a good read, was his somewhat curt assessment, which I interpreted to mean: it won’t win you any literary prizes. He then asked if I’d like for him to send it to his agent.

Of course, I said, completely dumbfounded.

Elizabeth McKee didn’t ask me to sign a contract before she began sending my manuscript out to publishers. The polite rejection I received from Knopf was handwritten by Robert Gottlieb. Other rejections followed.

It occurred to me that this well-respected agent was simply doing a favor for one of her authors, and most likely she was. But several years later, when I sent her another novel, a short one, she wrote back saying that of course she remembered me, I wrote about interesting characters with complicated dilemmas. In her experience, she went on, novellas were extremely difficult to sell; this was why she was declining mine.

In the early 1990s I acquired my second agent as part of a package deal with an editorial service. The fees I paid for editing included, once the novel was deemed publishable, an agent. Yes, I remember the agent’s name, and yes, she did send my novel out to editors, one of whom complained: another marriage down the drain, who wants to read about that?

When this agent no longer returned my calls, I wrote to her, enclosing a stamped postcard and asking her to check the appropriate box:
1)  I’m still sending the novel out, or
2)  I’ve completely given up on it.
Well, I asked for it, didn’t I?

I began a new novel, about a forty-something art history librarian named Vrai (short for Vraiment) and a ten-year-old boy named Jonathan. A friend here in Baltimore, who read several early versions, suggested an additional scene or two at the end. But, after working on it for five years, I was confident that the novel ended precisely when and where it should. So, keeping detailed logs, I started sending query letters to agents.

Two-and-half years later, in May of 2003, an agent I’d found online told me a novel couldn’t have more than one point of view and asked me to eliminate Jonathan’s. With reluctance, I complied. She then gleefully insisted on further changes. Of my ending she proclaimed, “Yes! Now Vrai has it all figured out.”

We signed a contract at the end of June. I was excited but also apprehensive. My full-length novel was turning into a novella. Elizabeth McKee, with all her experience and contacts, hadn’t wanted to try to sell a novella. Did this third agent, who’d never sold anything, know what she was doing?

In July she hand-delivered my shrunken manuscript to big-name editors at Random House, Viking, Bantam Dell, Anchor, and a few others. “It’s so short,” she complained to me.

In mid-August she sent me an e-mail proposing that we part company. That night she called and refused all further contact with me. She cursed at me and said I was “nasty.”

The part of me that had hoped she might actually find a publisher was so upset that I called my ex-husband. The rest of me was glad it was over. I soon learned, from a chat room or two, that I wasn’t the only writer she had dumped in exactly this way.

Revising had never been so much fun. I restored a lot of what she’d taken out. A novel can, of course, have multiple points of view, but I decided to stick with Vrai’s. Score one for the third agent.

During 2001-2004, I sent out 126 queries. Twenty-three (18%) of these agents responded with a request either for sample chapters or for the entire manuscript. The only contract I was offered, however, was the one I should never have signed.

Discouraged, I started yet another novel. I took the first chapter to John Dufresne’s workshop at the 2004 Taos Summer Writers’ Conference and the completed novel to his 2006 Master Class in Taos.* I also received a critique from Richard Peabody, legendary editor, teacher, and publisher in the DC area.

Fortuitously, the feedback for this new novel opened my eyes to a major problem with the novel about Vrai and Jonathan. The third agent had been wrong about the ending. My first reader had been spot on: the story wasn’t quite finished.

Chagrined, I began working on what is now the final third of True Stories at the Smoky View. I took the new, improved version to John Dufresne’s 2010 Master Class in Taos. Between October 2010 and March 2012, I queried 103 agents, of whom only eight (7.8%)–two of them referrals from John–asked to see more.

I’d been hearing that publishing was changing. I felt like living proof.

In 2013 I enrolled in the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program’s One Book Semester and spent six months working with Jenna Johnson, senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, on revising and polishing my novel. Based on her final critique, I added two new scenes.

Of the sixteen agents I queried in 2014, only one intrepid soul expressed interest. My novel was in the best shape ever, but traditional publishing was going in another direction.

I, too, changed course. On December 23, 2014, I sent off a submission to She Writes Press.

Having joined She Writes, an online community of women writers, the previous year, I had been keeping an eye on She Writes Press. As a former librarian, I wanted the opportunity to have my book in libraries, the usual prerequisite for which is a review in Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, or Publishers Weekly. With She Writes Press, such a review was at least possible.

Despite the holidays, the publisher, Brooke Warner, got back to me in the promised two weeks. On January 6, 2015, an astonishing e-mail arrived in my inbox. True Stories at the Smoky View had been accepted for publication in 2016!

It was a long and winding road, but I feel that I’ve ended up in exactly the right place. My experience with She Writes Press and with my publicists, Caitlin HamiltonMarketing & Publicity, have made me realize that the kindness, courtesy, trust, and professionalism extended to me decades ago by my first agent, Elizabeth McKee, still exist in the world of publishing.

And did I mention acceptance?

That bitter-cold night in January, I celebrated the red-hot news at my favorite Chinese restaurant. What wisdom, on this long-awaited occasion, did my fortune cookie dispense?

The efforts have the potential to pay off handsomely today.

I’m still smiling.

*The UNM Summer Writers’ Conference has now moved to Santa Fe.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday Sentence: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Now he was going to find out if it was actually possible to get rich from owning a baseball team, and he was going to do it by staking nearly everything on the most brilliant, headstrong, undisciplined, lovable, thrillingly original, ornery son of a bitch that ever put on a baseball uniform.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson


Friday, April 15, 2016

Friday Freebie: Daredevils by Shawn Vestal


Congratulations to Rhonda Lomazow, Lori Benedetto, Michael Cooper, and Lisa Murray, the winners of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Maisie at 8000 Feet by Frederick Reuss.

I’m thrilled to announce this week’s book giveaway is Daredevils by Shawn Vestal (author of Godforsaken Idaho). On a personal note, I frickin’ loved this novel set in the American West in the 1970s. It’s about love, the longing to break free from the confines of family and religion, and the risky chances one takes to earn that freedom. Woven throughout Vestal’s debut novel is the unforgettable voice of Mr. Daredevil himself, Evel Knievel. I highlighted one of those passages in an earlier Sunday Sentence here at the blog. I hope you’ll all enter this giveawayit’s a simple link-click, easier than jumping a motorcycle over a line of 40 busesbut even if you don’t win the contest, I urge you to get your hands on a copy of Daredevils and read it for yourself.

And now, a word from the publisher about the contents of the book...

At the heart of this exciting debut novel, set in Arizona and Idaho in the mid-1970s, is fifteen-year-old Loretta, who slips out of her bedroom every evening to meet her so-called gentile boyfriend. Her strict Mormon parents catch her returning one night, and promptly marry her off to Dean Harder, a devout yet materialistic fundamentalist who already has a wife and a brood of kids. The Harders relocate to his native Idaho, where Dean’s teenage nephew Jason falls hard for Loretta. A Zeppelin and Tolkien fan, Jason worships Evel Knievel and longs to leave his close-minded community. He and Loretta make a break for it. They drive all night, stay in hotels, and relish their dizzying burst of teenage freedom as they seek to recover Dean’s cache of “Mormon gold.” But someone Loretta left behind is on their trail...A riveting story of desire and escape, Daredevils boasts memorable set pieces and a rich cast of secondary characters. There’s Dean’s other wife, Ruth, who as a child in the 1950s was separated from her parents during the notorious Short Creek raid, when federal agents descended on a Mormon fundamentalist community. There’s Jason’s best friend, Boyd, part Native American and caught up in the activist spirit of the time, who comes along for the ride, with disastrous results. And Vestal’s ultimate creation is a superbly sleazy chatterbox—a man who might or might not be Evel Knievel himself—who works his charms on Loretta at a casino in Elko, Nevada. A lifelong journalist whose Spokesman column is a fixture in Spokane, WA, Shawn has honed his fiction over many years, publishing in journals like McSweeney’s and Tin House. His stunning first collection, Godforsaken Idaho, burrowed into history as it engaged with masculinity and crime, faith and apostasy, and the West that he knows so well. Daredevils shows what he can do on a broader canvas—a fascinating, wide-angle portrait of a time and place that's both a classic coming of age tale and a plunge into the myths of America, sacred and profane.

If you’d like a chance at winning Daredevils, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on April 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on April 22.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Tales of an AWP Virgin; or, How I Survived the Conference Without Gnawing Off My Own Hand


For the past six years I’ve attended the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference...via my Twitter feed. I fall into that category of never-been-but-always-kinda-sorta-wanted-to-go. This year’s conference in Los Angeles, attended by more than 12,000 book-lovin’ souls, was no different: I kept up with the panels, the readings, the publishers’ booth displays, and the kissy-face author-drinking-with-fellow-author selfies while sitting at my desk in my Butte, Montana home. I was completely exhausted after four days of virtual-AWP’ing.

I was curious to know what it was like to really be there pressing the sweaty flesh and chugging Starbucks while trying to stay awake during the umpteenth panel discussion on “Genre: Does It Really Matter Anymore?” So, when my friend Amanda Turner said she was there and had taken “thousands of notes,” I jumped at the chance for an insider’s report. Amanda promised to be a lively commentator on the eventone which is equally mocked and loved among my friends, who’ve always ended their emails to me with “You need to go at least once just to experience it.” Maybe 2017 will be my year.

Amanda, a humorist from Boise, Idaho who’s written several books (including Mommy Had a Little Flask and Hair of the Corn Dog) agreed to answer a few of my questions via email...once she’d fully recovered from her AWP hangover.

Jess Walter and Amanda Turner: Selfie BFFs
Was this your first time at AWP?

Yes. My friend and writer Alan Heathcock raves every year about AWP. After years of hearing about it, I decided 2016 would be the year I would go. It also happened to be the year Alan and many other friends decided not to go. At first that seemed unfortunate, not having anyone to pal around with, but as writers we often stay with what is safe and comfortable. Without a wingman, I was forced to leave my comfort zone and meet people, so it worked out well. Obviously I’m searching for the silver lining. A wingman would have been awesome.

What were your expectations before you went?

I anticipated learning as much as I could at panels and networking with others in the industry. The networking happened sometimes via meaningful conversations and at other times loosely in the form of following panelists on social media. I also had the expectation of experiencing the literary crowd, of which I don’t generally consider myself a part. I’m a humor writer, not one to be described as literary. (While I was at AWP, most of my fellow humorists were in Ohio at the Erma Bombeck conference.) That said, I didn’t foresee feeling like an outsider as much I did. On more than one occasion, I would befuddle someone by admitting that I didn't have an MFA, nor was I in search of a program. Disclosing that I write humor was equally confusing to a few people. While AWP wasn’t exclusively centered on literary fiction, poetry, and academia, those three things were the core of the event.

Pressing the flesh at the F(r)iction mag booth (Photo courtesy of D. M. Hedlund)
If you had to describe the AWP experience in three words, what would they be?

Overwhelming. Literary. Expensive. Wait, can I have more words? Because with just those three I sound like a real downer. It was also Inspiring and Educational.

What were the best events you attended? 

A panel with Erika Krouse, Kai Carlson-Wee, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, Maggie Shipstead, and Alexander Lumans called “There and Back Again: Writing from the Road” was downright dynamic. I would say the same of “Writing About Other(ed) Spaces” with Jeremy Jones, Justin Nobel, Catina Bacote, Wendy Call, and Stephen West. These are people whose work I am now actively seeking out because their writing is stunning and important, everything you want writing to be. These were the standouts who managed to be literary without pretense, spanning film and poetry, from Appalachia to the Arctic Circle to a conflicted but loving remembrance of growing up in a housing project. Their work was gritty, real, beautiful, and by turns funny and poignant. I can’t say enough about them. I’m now stalking all of them on social media.

I attended two other panels of note: “Guerilla Girl Marketing” which discussed the benefits and logistics of forming a writers’ collective, and “Does Travel Writing Have a Place in the Age of Instagram and Google Earth?” (the answer is yes, it does).

I often attend author readings in my hometown of Boise, so at AWP I focused on going to panels and checking out the book fair. While I can’t speak to any of the readings, the book fair was interesting. It’s a giant room full of people touting MFA programs and trying to sell literary journals. The irony is that they’re hawking literary journals to people who can’t afford them. (That was the great irony of AWP as a whole, that most of us couldn’t afford to be there.) Of course, there was far more to the book fair than just MFAs and lit mags, and it was entertaining to wander, chat with people, and pick up some swag geared for word nerds.

Which events were the most disappointing?

I attended a panel (which should have been billed as a reading) where the speakers took turns reading their work with the most robotic deliveries I’d ever encountered. It was so bad that when late-comers wandered in, I would stare at them and attempt telepathy, trying to communicate Run away! The panelists might have been fantastic writers, but I couldn’t get beyond the delivery, which made me want to gnaw off my own hand.

Another panel was titled “Going Global” and, according to the program, was supposed to “talk about strategies for reaching out authentically in a transnational context, as well as the benefits and costs involved.” The sum practical advice was to “make connections” and, if you can, save up money to attend conferences abroad. I found this less than helpful. Then the panelists would read their poetry. One gave a short, scripted lecture in which she worked in multiple instances of words like quotidian and peripatetic and began one sentence with “From the time of Mitochondrial Eve...” She also admitted her current project centers on studying creative excellence, because “you get money if you talk about creative excellence.”


Sasquatch: Hairiest dude at AWP? It’s still up for debate. (Photo courtesy of Jerri Bell)
What’s your advice for the first-time AWP’er?

If a panel isn’t working for you, leave. It’s difficult to plan your schedule with thirty panels and readings going on at once. Instead of choosing one that turns out to be less than what you’d hoped and suffering through it, have a backup plan and move on.

You’ll find people of all types at AWP, those with exceptional talent and others with overdramatic angst. There are people who take themselves too seriously, those who just want to hang out at the lobby bar, and nervous professors clad in corduroy and tweed. People range from painfully nerdy to quintessentially hip (many manage to combine the two). Try not to focus on your first assumptions, based on appearances, the presence or lack of an MFA, or a person’s inclination to use quotidian and peripatetic in the same sentence, and instead remember that we all share a love of the written word. Keep an open mind and use the experience to learn as much as you can.

What would you do different next time? Will there even be a next time for you?

I’d take my own advice and leave if something isn’t working. I think there will be a next time, though I don’t see myself going every year (owing only to the combined expenses of airfare, registration, hotel, and eating outmade doubly oppressive by this year’s L.A. location). My favorite panels were outstanding enough to make up for the deficiencies of others. I’d also recognize that while I felt like an outsider at times, most writers feel like outsiders. It comes back to the one thing we all share: an appreciation of prose. If I can celebrate that, if I can keep writing and never stop learning, then I belong at AWP as much as anyone.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Thin Line Between Horror and Schmaltz: Hollywood and the Holocaust by Henry Gonshak


Can the Holocaust and art co-exist?

That’s what Henry Gonshak sets out to learn in Hollywood and the Holocaust. The film studies book, which came out last October puts more than two dozen movies under the critical microscope with a writing style that’s smart and (dare I say it?) fun.

Gonshak opens the book by asking “Can Hollywood get it right?” then proceeds to discuss, in depth, Hollywood’s various depictions of the last century’s darkest blot—everything from Charlie Chaplin’s timeless classic The Great Dictator to Quentin Tarantino’s bloody, cartoonish Inglorious Basterds.

His discussion focuses strictly on films made by major studios in Hollywood and ignores foreign and independent films like The Pianist, The Tin Drum and Au Revoir, Les Enfants. Though I was surprised and a little disappointed by the exclusion of some movies, his decision is understandable. To include every Holocaust film would have made for a much longer book. And an even more depressing one at that.

Nonetheless, there is much to be gained from having a book like this on your shelf (the one neighboring the DVD collection of films you hate to love, perhaps). Gonshak managed to amuse, provoke, anger, and sadden me, sometimes all in the space of a single page. He made me think about why and how we commit some images to film. As I read Hollywood and the Holocaust, it felt like I was embarking on a lively film studies course—indeed, many of the chapters sent me to Netflix and YouTube to watch films I’d never seen before, or in some cases to revisit ones I’d seen years ago.


Hollywood and the Holocaust begins with Charlie Chaplin’s first “talkie,” The Great Dictator, which Gonshak calls “a masterpiece.” Released in 1940, the film has incited controversy over the years (some critics say Chaplin wasn’t hard enough on Hitler), but Gonshak reminds us that The Great Dictator was made in a time well before the world learned about the full extent of concentration-camp life.


On the other hand, the postwar The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) seemed to signal a turning point in Hollywood’s depiction of the Holocaust. Gonshak says it is the one film that “by far exerted the greatest influence on audiences and critics.” Still, he takes it to task for the way it all but ignores the Frank family’s Jewish faith and, in particular, he objects to Anne’s oft-quoted closing line: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Gonshak writes:
It’s an expression of belief so vaporous that no one (except perhaps the most cantankerous atheist) could possibly object to. How, after all, can anyone be against a God manifested in trees and flowers and human goodness? On the other hand, one might ask, why has such a benevolent deity sanctioned the Holocaust?
Gonshak holds Hollywood’s feet to the fire and can be unrelentingly critical: “The real problem is not that we have too many Hollywood Holocaust films but rather that we have too few good ones.” But he measures each of the movies with a judicious yardstick. He rightly calls the Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful “a Holocaust fable that consistently downplays the horror of the camps in order to ensure that nothing undermines its message about the imperishability of love.”


The longest chapter in the book is devoted, perhaps predictably, to Schindler’s List, which Gonshak says is the one Hollywood Holocaust film that “best treads the precarious middle ground between pure horror and schmaltz.” Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film is such a cultural touchstone that “for most Americans, Schindler’s List isn’t about the Holocaust; it is the Holocaust.”

Even as it entertains us, Hollywood has a way of making us numb to genocide (which, as Gonshak later points out, is not confined to Germany during World War Two, but also includes the Hutu massacres in Rwanda and Cambodia’s “killing fields”). Over time, have we become complacent about the horrors of Hitler’s “Final Solution”? Gonshak thinks there’s a very real danger of that happening.

To illustrate his point, he mentions a scene he witnessed in the Student Union Building at Montana Tech here in Butte, Montana, when the main lounge area had a display of posters depicting the Holocaust:
Although this exhibit of graphic photos took up almost the whole room, many Montana Tech students refused to allow its presence to curtail their normal activities in the lounge. As a result, alongside photographs of starving children slumped on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto and emaciated camp inmates staring blankly through barbed wire stood groups of fresh-faced Montana Tech students making amiable chitchat with their friends, scarfing down a hot dog or slice of pizza before class, even sprawled in easy chairs watching daytime TV soaps. In many ways, this juxtaposition was as chilling as the photos themselves, since it seemed unwitting confirmation of the bleak truth that humanity’s self-absorbed indifference to the suffering of others can allow an atrocity like the Holocaust to occur.
But is it the job of movies to “shake us to wake us” or to merely entertain us (as much as the Holocaust can be called “entertaining”)? These are just some of the big questions Gonshak wrestles with in his smart, thoughtful book: “Can the Holocaust be truly represented in art? And should it be?”

A version of this review originally appeared in The Montana Standard.


Monday, April 11, 2016

My First Time: Ellen Prentiss Campbell


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Ellen Prentiss Campbell, author of Contents Under Pressure, a collection of stories, and the forthcoming novel The Bowl with Gold Seams. Her short fiction has been featured in numerous journals including The Massachusetts Review, The Fourth River, The Potomac Review, and The MacGuffin. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Fiction Writers Review, where she is a contributing editor, and The Washington Independent Review of Books. A practicing psychotherapist, she lives in Washington, D.C.

My First Book Babies

I’ve been experiencing the thrills and chills, the excitement and the terror, of first-time parenting. At age sixty-two, I’m a prima-para. Impossible? One for the Guinness Book of World Records? No. I’m giving birth to a book—two, in fact. My first full-length books are both being published this year, within three months of each other. So here I am—a very much older Mom, a double prima-para in late middle-age. My short story collection Contents Under Pressure appeared in February. My debut novel’s due date—oops, publication date—is coming soon: The Bowl with Gold Seams will be released in May. I’m calling the duo my Irish Twins.

Perhaps every publication, like every birth, seems miraculous. These do. I believed I’d waited too long to try and have literary children. Reading and writing were my first loves, but then wonderful, welcome life happened: marriage, social work school, practicing psychotherapy, raising three children, caring for my elders. Life happened, interrupting other plans the way it does—life: interesting, messy, demanding, joyful, and sad. Life happened, bringing an ever richer accretion of stories to tell, but an ever-diminishing amount of time and energy.

Until the autumn of 2001. My return to writing, my prompt to pick up the quivering pen, was not a direct 9/11 epiphany. I did not have a close personal encounter with that tragedy. My immediate loved ones were safe: one friend called me that night to say she had made it home, walking barefoot by the end of her trek from Wall Street to W. 69th; my brother worked in Brooklyn, not Manhattan, that day. But as the ruins smoldered, as the wreckage of lives was winnowed, as the obituaries piled up like autumn leaves, I kept vigil two hundred miles south. I watched over my elderly parents fading and slipping away. They died in close succession: peaceful, timely deaths. The twin towers of our family went down, and their loss reminded me I was next in line.

So I picked up the pen. Actually, I starting typing on the word-processor my kids no longer claimed for homework; they’d moved on to laptops. I wrote short stories for the first time since college, stories inspired and infused by memory and experience. I wrote in the early morning before work, sustained by a small audience of readers: my husband, my friends. I took a workshop at our local writing center; joined a writing group. I sent stories out, and out again as they boomeranged back to me. Success goes to she who pays the most postage, a mentor counseled in that snail-mail submission day. Finally, an acceptance came from a literary journal, and another, and another. Some of those early published stories are among those now collected in Contents Under Pressure.

And then I discovered a strange chapter in the history of a resort hotel near our summer home. The Bedford Springs had served as the detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Germany and his staff in the summer of 1945. Such an odd confluence of cultures, in that unlikely place, in that particular moment, grabbed hold of my imagination. I began writing the first version of what would, more than a decade later, become my novel The Bowl with Gold Seams.

I continued practicing psychotherapy, listening to stories of loss and yearning, struggle and resilience. I enrolled in and completed an MFA with the Bennington Writing Seminars. And I kept writing, sustained by a network of writers and friends, near and far. More stories were published; I tried to find an agent for my novel. Queries went out: no takers. I grew anxious, discouraged. I remembered trying to get pregnant, an uncertain process that seemed to take too long. I almost became convinced it was too late for my book. Would my creative juices also dry up in some sort of parallel process as I entered menopause?

My husband, the optimist, encouraged me to keep writing, to start book reviewing. Pushed me to attend a local literary conference that offered (horror of horrors) speed dating with agents.

The conference took place in a suburban hotel. Most of the writers and agents seemed to be wearing black. Oddly, in the lobby the writers crossed paths with a group of Buddhist monks in bright robes. I never learned what brought the monks to the hotel but the commingled cultures must have been a good omen for my novel, the story of a young woman from Pennsylvania and the Japanese prisoners at the Bedford Springs. Several agents nibbled; the following week two offered, and I selected one. My agent loved the book; her belief and validation flooded me with confidence like a positive pregnancy test. But even with her representation, the novel went out and came back, out and back, out and back. Finally, an unexpected, unsolicited offer came—for the unrepresented stories (the collection had placed in a contest, garnered some attention). That kept my hope alive, and urged on by a wise friend, I re-wrote the novel again: one more time, one last time.

I started another novel, trying to accept that the first beloved project would never see the light of day.

Last spring, as my very elderly aunt, the very last member of my parents’ generation lay dying, an offer came for the novel: a strange, symmetrical book-end to the arc of the story of how my writing had begun, almost fourteen years earlier.

And now here I am: the matriarch of my family, squarely in the cross-hairs of mortality but simultaneously the brand-new, first time mother of two literary babes, my book-ish Irish twins. I’m learning that bringing a book into the world—like bearing a child—is a process rather than an event. A private process at first: a gleam, a glimmer, a hope, a hunch; followed by confirmation, and gradual development and quickening. Still quiet and invisible for a time, then shared with a select circle of family, friends, and professional handlers: doctors, midwives, agents, editors, publishers, copy-editors, publicists. And then you’re showing, and it’s time for the attendant logistics and paraphernalia of showers and announcements, launch parties and reviews.

And an author photograph—my personal Waterloo. Not many an expectant mother, unless a Duchess or a starlet, must sit for a formal portrait and later see herself in shop windows and the media. But if you’re expecting a book, an author portrait is required, and you must hope to see yourself out in the world, advertising your baby.

So with my double publication dates still a trimester away, I arrived at the department store make-up counter one morning last autumn. I’m not a frequent-flier there, in fact product lines have been known to disappear between my infrequent visits. But that morning I was en route to my haircut, preparing for the dreaded photo shoot later in the day. I needed something—what? Something for my eyes perhaps, instead of my usual drugstore mascara. Something that would work some sort of magic.

The elegant saleswoman wasn’t busy, and shrewdly gauged my anxiety meant a good sale. She creamed and dabbed, concealed and revealed. A circle of her colleagues, representatives of rival brands from adjoining counters, gathered to watch her gild and glitz a quiet psychotherapist who likes to write in her nightgown before going to the office. An hour later, my eyelids were heavy with shadow, my eyelashes stiff with mascara, my lips glossed, and my billfold lighter. The patrician make-up artist gave me her card and asked for mine, saying, “I want to be sure to get your books.” I arrived late for my haircut, but my longtime hairdresser forgave me. “I’ve never seen you with make-up!” She snipped and blow-dried, sprayed and moussed and I felt like Dorothy being buffed and fluffed in the Land of Oz for a meeting with the all-powerful wizard. I left the salon and hurried home to change clothes half a dozen times before the photographer came.

I’m famous for closing my eyes at the critical moment in photographs. Shy even in my own study, I flinched each time the lithe young photographer clicked her camera. She was patient, or maintained the illusion of patience through the sitting. “Let’s try a few outdoors.” Snap, snap, snap. It was easier out of doors.

My eyes were open in almost every photo. The one I selected looked like me, on a good day. Relieved and pleased, I showed my husband.

“She made you look old!”

If I had been young, he might have paid for that comment. But I’m old enough to know how to re-frame, a survival skill you acquire, over the years. Properly understood, or carefully misunderstood with a dash of humor and perspective, I could appreciate that in his eyes I am still young. As I was when we posed for our wedding photos, and a few years later for our first family Christmas card picture with the first baby.

The author photo must have grown on him, or perhaps he’s been doing some re-framing of his own. Just the other day, he showed off my book, proud as a father with an infant.

“She looks like a writer in this picture,” my husband said.

I’m old enough not to care that I look my age in the author photo. And I’m old enough to appreciate that my age gives me the stories I’m finally telling.

But I’m young enough, too. The first book is newborn, and the next one’s due soon.